Iran imprisoned three American hikers in July 2009 for crossing into the country, releasing one for health reasons in September after being paid a $500,000 bail. Now, the remaining two have been sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly being American spies. There is speculation that they will be released at the end of Ramadan, which will be predictably touted by the regime as proof of its good will and mercy. If they are not, Iran must be warned that the U.S. will not look the other way as its innocent citizens are imprisoned.
The three victims are Josh Fattal, an environmental and health activist; Shane Bauer, a freelance journalist; and Sarah Shourd, an English teacher for Iraqi refugees in Damascus and Bauer’s fiancé. They are 28, 29 and 32 years old, respectively. These young adventurers are admirable citizens, seeking to make a career out of helping others around the world. In the summer of 2009, they took a trip together to Iraqi Kurdistan to go hiking and see the country’s beautiful mountainous region.
The group was not on an ill-advised trip to a danger zone. Thousands of tourists visit the beautiful and peaceful area every year, including friends of the three. Kurdistan is a bright spot in Iraq, enjoying economic prosperity, relative stability and democracy since being protected from Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish Regional Government proudly boasts that no American has been attacked in the region. Fattal, Bauer and Shourd had no reason to expect what would happen to them.
On July 31, 2009, the three walked off of a path near a waterfall and soon found themselves being held by Iranian police for crossing into their country. The Americans begged for their lives when their captors cocked their weapons, leading them to believe they were about to be executed. They were brought to Evin Prison, known as a torture house for its treatment of the Iranian regime’s worst enemies. The regime’s interrogators act on the most horrifying impulses in mankind, using every method to break the will of the imprisoned.
It was seven months before Shourd was permitted to call her family. Fattal and Bauer have only been allowed three phone calls so far. When the group’s mothers visited them in May 2010, their visit was limited to two days. Shourd bravely went on a hunger strike to protest their treatment. Her captors offered to release her if she admitted to being a U.S. spy, and warned her she’d lose her life if she spoke about what went on inside Evin Prison. One of the guards said he’d personally sign her death warrant. She was ultimately released in September 2010 for medical reasons after having a $500,000 bail posted for her.
When Shourd came back home, she said that her male companions had been beaten. Fattal took more food that he was permitted, and was thrown down the stairs as punishment. In another incident, Bauer was thrown into the wall of his jail cell until his head started bleeding.
“I can see them in their cramped little cell with very little sunlight and they only get out an hour a day and, you know, they exercise side by side on a space like the size of a towel,” Shourd said.
On August 20, the Iranian government sentenced Fattal and Bauer to eight years in prison, three years for “illegal entry” and five years on “charges of espionage for the American intelligence agency.” The two pled not guilty and have 20 days to appeal the verdict. Of course, any appeal is ill-fated as the regime is not interested in a fair trial. There was a glimmer of hope that they’d be released when the Iranian foreign minister said he hoped that their trial would “advance in a way that would lead to their freedom.” The prosecutor general, however, dismissed “rumors” that the regime has decided to release them. Still, it is possible that the regime will pardon them in honor of tradition at the end of Ramadan on August 29. As Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert with the American Enterprise Institute, explains, this would allow Ahmadinejad to “boast about how magnanimous he is and how he personally freed them” when he addresses the U.N. next month.
Some analysts such as Alfoneh see the sentencing of the two American hikers in the context of the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Alfoneh says that Khamenei “really wants to humiliate Ahmadinejad before the U.N. visit” by showing him as powerless. Ahmadinejad has requested that they be given a soft punishment, but some analysts in Iran believe that the judiciary doesn’t want to be seen as subservient to him. One analyst believes that Khamenei wants to prevent Ahmadinejad from trying to improve ties with the U.S. If that is correct, then Khamenei is more of a hardliner than even Ahmadinejad.
It is a sad fact that few Americans are aware of this story. Severe international pressure on Iran to release the hikers is long overdue. The names of Josh Fattal and Shaune Bauer must be heard around the world, and the Iranian regime must be loudly warned of the consequences of not freeing them. The U.S. must not abandon its citizens.
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